Why Zambia Needs Jesus

I have traveled enough to have seen my share of Third World Poverty. From Swaziland, to the Amazon Basin, to India poverty has a somewhat familiar face. There is a difference between the rural and urban face of poverty but generally speaking when you see rural poverty in one country it looks a lot like rural poverty in another. The same can be said of urban poverty. Or so I thought. A few days ago I was introduced to rural poverty like I have never seen it before. The Western Province of Zambia is about the size of England yet has only a million people. Mongu is the largest town in the province with about 30,000 people. But don’t let the word “town” fool you. From what I could tell most of those 30,000 people live in grass huts no different from the rest of the province. Folks outside the town live in small grass hut villages ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred people.

It is estimated that in Western Zambia there is close to a 50% HIV/AIDS infection rate. Before the introduction of ARV’s or antiretroviral drugs, the infection rate was about 30%. So why the rise in infection rates? The ARV’s are helping people live longer. The tragedy in that is that lots of those folks are not changing their sexual habits and simply passing on the disease to more people. Included in that culture is what young girls go through after they experience their first menstruation. I small, closet sized straw enclosure is made outside the house. It has no roof and no door. It is a glorified walled fence with no door. it is built-in such a way that you can’t see directly in. The girls are placed their as the place where they now live and are forced to keep silent in order to learn submission. But every sex offending guy in the area knows this. So it is common for these young girls to be repeatedly raped and they must keep quiet the whole time. Not only do they suffer the trauma of that violation butit comes with the astronomically high risk of HIV infection.

As if it could not get more shocking, three out of five children in Western Zambia die before the age of five. So 60% of all children never see their fifth birthday.  What do they die from? Well AIDs is a big factor but so are very preventable and basic things. Scores of children die from drinking water that is not clean. In little ones, the diarrhea that results is quickly followed by death. Also high on the list is death from malnutrition. Even though Zambia is a net exporter of agriculture, the western province has been shut out and ignored by the central government. There are almost no roads leading into the area. Roads the do exist are either crater filled dirt roads or subject to flooding several months out of the year. So because of tribal disagreements, apathy, and the lust for power, children die.

As painful as that reality may be, the most shocking reason for this mortality rate was that some children are killed by their own parents in obedience to the dictates of the local witch doctor or shaman. Friends who I stayed with told me of the horror of learning that a family just a hundred meters down the road killed their baby. The local witch doctor told them the baby was cursed and the needed to kill it. So they buried the child alive. By the time my friends heard this and rushed to save the baby, it was too late. Lest you think that is one, extreme, unique situation we heard similar stories on several occasions.

But there is hope. My friends, Paul and Marinette Van Coller are living in Mongu and leading an effort called The Zambia Project. Along with an amazing team of people, including their 5 and 3-year-old sons, the Van Collers are providing education, health care, job training, a safe house village for abused children and are taking the Gospel to all parts of the province. Their vision is to plant a church within walking distance of all 1 million people in the province. Walking distance for them is not what it is in the west. Six or seven kilometers or about an hours walk is their target. That means they are working towards planting 6,000 churches.

The reason for planting the churches is simple enough. The only way to break the hold of animism and witch doctors, and sexual abuse of kids, and provide clean water and dignity is if there is a healthy church that is serving people in Jesus name. These folks need the freedom and power that can only come from the Gospel.

The process is actually rather simple. A group of people, including Zambians who are being raised up for leadership will head off into the bush in four by fours. They will go to a village and live out of their vehicles for a week or two at a time, building relationships and talking about Jesus. Eventually some people come to faith and become the beginning of a church. The team then stays in contact and trains local leaders to begin the process of improving their lives in the village. Eventually those new believers duplicate the process in villages nearby. If that all sounds very “first century Book of Acts” to you, you’re right. It is exactly that.

What inspires me is that people like Paul and Marinette and James and Jess, Lehana, Moses, Stephen, Maurice, Scott and Naomi, and Ruani, have dedicated themselves to serve others as Jesus would. Some of them are from the province and they are struggling desperately to bring Jesus to their homeland. Others are from outside Zambia but they know that God would not let them ignore the needs of others. In the developed world we find it easy to insulate ourselves from the harsh realities faced by most people on the planet. Just by reading this blog you have allowed yourself to move out of your isolation and see the stark reality of life that is normal for others. The question is, will you slide back into your comfortable world in the next five minutes or will you allow what you have learned to change you into a different person? Will you live more simply so you can give to others? Will you give up your vacation in order to go and spend two weeks feeding babies or even planting churches in Zambia? Will you reach out to the homeless person you pass each day on the corner? Will you spend more time with Jesus so you can learn to love as He loves and tell others about Him?

The Gospel is NOT what you have been told

If your Christian experience has found you in a more conservative church that focuses on people asking Jesus into their hearts then you have probably been trained that the Gospel is all about loving God and making sure you will get to heaven. If your experience is more of a church that focuses on serving the poor and needy then you have been trained that the Gospel is all about loving your neighbor and making sure that they experience a bit of heaven right here on earth. Both of those understandings of the Gospel are mutated aberrations of what the Bible really teaches.

I have seen both of these extremes in action so many times that they have almost become cartoon caricatures in my mind. On the one hand you have the folks who regularly come up with some new gimmick for telling people about Jesus. It might be a Christian version of a Rubik’s Cube or multi-colored wrist band, or a little blue booklet that you pull out of your pocket at the most inappropriate times. In some cases it is the obligatory altar call at the end of a sermon. The message may have had nothing to do with the grace of God and the church may have the same 75 people who have been coming for decades, some of whom have walked the aisle multiple times, but we must have a chance for people to pray a sinners pray and punch their ticket to heaven. No consideration is given to the trauma or pain in their lives. No attempt is made to minister to the needs of the poor and broken in order to love them to Jesus. It is all about the message and getting that prayer done.

On the other hand there are growing numbers of people who are serving the needs of the poor and broken. They are offering the cup of cold water, giving shelter the homeless, clothing to the naked, visiting the prisoner, and a host of other wonderful things. This is especially true in the under 30 crowd in Christianity, although it has a long history in the liberal branch of the faith no matter what the age. There is a lot of cool stuff going on, but what you might never hear is anyone actually telling the poor, or the prisoner, or the homeless person that they need to submit to the Lordship of Christ in their lives and follow Him. We can’t say that for fear of sounding exclusive or arrogant and we don’t want to offend anyone.

Neither of those approaches is faithful to Jesus or the Gospel that He preached. When Jesus began His public ministry he gave a very clear picture of what the Gospel is in Luke 4:17-19:

17And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus said that He was sent to proclaim the Good News, the Gospel. They mean the same thing. So the Good News, the Gospel includes both speaking and doing. It is about telling people something and showing people something. You tell the poor the Good News, but you also set free those who are oppressed. It is about redemption. In the Old Testament there is a long history of the idea of redemption. It is about restoring something or someone to its rightful place. Often times people would have to sell themselves into slavery because of a financial disaster in their lives. If a relative came about bought them out of their slavery then that relative was called their kinsman redeemer. The idea was to restore the person to the completeness of what was lost. The got their lives back because someone paid a redemption price. The was certainly Good News to the slave.

Jesus is our kinsman redeemer. He paid the price for our restoration. We are restored through Christ to the relationship with the Father that was lost due to our sin. That restoration is not just about a place in Heaven with God. It is not just about having our lives in this world made better. It is both. The Gospel is holistic. The Good News is that life now and life to come are both to be changed by Christ. The implication of that for people who follow Jesus is that God cares about the spiritual and the physical. He cares about eternity and the here and now. He redeems our soul and our body. If God cares about such things then we should as well. We should be prepared to share the Gospel in word and deed. We should demonstrate the Gospel for our neighbor by showing them the love of Christ as we cloth them, feed them, house them and heal them. We should tell them of the love of Christ for them by proclaiming for them the message of liberty and freedom found in Christ.

That is the Gospel. It is not a lopsided mutation of only preaching or only serving. Jesus did both. He calls us to do both. If we serve people as He did, then like Nicodemus in John chapter 3, people will come to us. They will have been provoked to ask why we are the way we are. Then we can proclaim how we have been set free by Jesus.